President Trump has been known to serve Big Macs to VIP visitors to the White House, but for Friday night’s state dinner, the fare will be far more refined — and lighter, with an entree of Dover sole taking the place of the expected red-meat centerpiece.
The president and first lady Melania Trump are hosting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his wife, Jenny Morrison, with a menu the White House said “highlights the lush, late summer season across the vast lands of America.”
The bounty of produce that will be served to guests in the Rose Garden includes sunchokes, which will be served roasted, pureed and encased in ravioli, and dressed with a lemony Parmigiano-Reggiano sauce. Bonus veggies come in the form of shavings of sun-gold carrots, baby kale and sunchoke chips atop the first-course pasta dish.
The entree, the aforementioned Dover sole, served with a fennel mousseline (a rich, hollandaise-adjacent sauce) has a classic feel. It’s accompanied by summer squash blossoms, whose green and gold hues echo the decor — and, certainly not coincidentally, the colors of the guest country. Hyperlocal sourcing is in effect, with herbs from the White House garden topping a rouille, a mayonnaise-like condiment spiked with garlic.
Also in the traditional category is the dessert, a gussied-up apple pie made with Lady apples from Pacific Northwest and Mid-Atlantic trees. The tart is accompanied with a scoop (or two, if you’re the commander in chief?) of ice cream spiked with Calvados, an apple brandy that offers a double dose of the trademark American fruit.
Cream on all three courses? No point in counting calories on such a special occasion: This is only the second state dinner of the Trump administration and the first time the Aussies have been so feted since 2006.
It seems the eclectic blend of European influences threaded throughout the menu is intentional. According to the White House, the selection “pays homage to Australia’s special blend of culinary adaptations from its various cultures, not unlike the diverse food traditions of the United States.” Meaning that the guest country has a melting pot of food ways, just like we do.
As for what’s in the glasses, the wine list boasts some Australian DNA, notes The Washington Post’s wine columnist, Dave McIntyre. With the first course, the famously teetotaling president is pouring a sauvignon blanc from Spring Mountain, whose winemaker studied viticulture at the University of Adelaide. The second-course accompaniment, a pinot noir from Willamette Valley’s Argyle Winery (co-founded by Aussie Brian Croser), might raise eyebrows among those who still think that fish demands a white wine. (It doesn’t; in fact, the Clintons shocked traditionalists in 1994 when they served a pinot noir with an arctic char at a state dinner.) And bubbles go with the sweet finale in the form of a demi-sec from J Vineyards in Sonoma.
The pageant of American products is no accident. State dinners (okay, so nit-pickers will point out that this one isn’t technically a state dinner, since the Aussie prime minister isn’t the head of state, but just go with it here) are meant to highlight the ties between the United States and its bestie nations — and they’re a chance for White House chefs to showcase the best of U.S. cuisine.
It’s common, too, to nod to the cuisine of the visiting country, although this dinner’s menu doesn’t offer any overt tribute.
“For each state dinner, the chef tries to honor the guests in some way, whether it be the wine selection, a dish, or a special ingredient,” Lindsay Chervinsky, a historian with the White House Historical Association, wrote in an email. “For example, at the March 9, 2016 State Dinner in honor of Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau and Mrs. Trudeau, the dessert featured maple pecan cake because Canada is the one of largest producers of maple syrup. For the June 1, 1967 State Dinner in honor Australian Prime Minister Holt, the chef named the dessert ‘Glacé Zara’ after Mrs. Holt.”
For the Trumps’ first state dinner, held last spring in honor of French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte Macron, the menu included Gallic touches: a salad with goat cheese gâteau and ice cream flavored with creme fraiche.
But White House chefs don’t try to straight-up replicate the signature dishes of their guests’ countries.
“If the Japanese are visiting, we’re not doing sushi,” says John Moeller, who helped execute dozens of state dinners during his stint as a White House chef from 1992 to 2005.
Putting together a menu for such a signature event is a laborious process, he notes. It typically starts three or more months out, when the state visit is set, and begins with going over the dietary restrictions and preferences of the visiting heads of state, usually provided by the State Department. Chefs will consider the time of year and what local ingredients will be available and suggest a list of dishes, he says, which eventually makes its way to the first lady, who might provide feedback or suggestions.
There’s often a dress rehearsal where chefs prepare a dinner for 10 or so people (including the president and first lady) to test the meal, as well as the decor and flowers, which can result in more fine-tuning.
So when it comes time for the real deal, the White House kitchen is prepared for the high-wire act that is a state dinner. Moeller says that once the traditional predinner toasts are finished, the staff swoops into action. “Once you hear the clinking of those glasses, there is no looking back,” he says. “It’s got to roll — and there can be no mistakes.”
Ann Stock, who was the social secretary — a.k.a. the ringleader of the state-visit circus — in the Clinton administration, says White House staff feel such pressure because of the event’s high stakes and high profile. “It’s the highest honor our country can give another country,” she says. And then there’s the responsibility of showing off the best of American food, wine, design and music. “Those are some of our country’s biggest industries, and this is our chance to shine and showcase the best of America to our visitors,” she says.
Given the importance of such moments, the staff take pains to avoid any dinner-table mishaps, sometimes pulling it off by the skin of their teeth.
Stock recalled that at the Clintons’ first state dinner in 1994, an opulent white-tie affair honoring the emperor and empress of Japan, then-House Speaker Tom Foley and his wife hadn’t shown up, with only minutes to go before guests were to be seated. She had the switchboard connect her to his home, and when she reached him, she learned that the couple had mixed up the dates and thought the dinner was the next evening.
Stock was faced with the prospect of an empty chair directly in primo territory, in front of the royal guests — a huge no-no — when she caught sight of White House curator Bill Allman, whom she had asked to be on hand to answer guests’ questions about the mansion’s art and antiques. “There he was, in pristine white tie, and I walked up to him and said, ‘Mr. Allman, how would you like to be the speaker of the House?’”
And so the curator took a seat — between Jane Fonda and Barbra Streisand. “He’s still talking about that night!” Stock says.
The full menu:
Shaved Summer Vegetables
Spring Mountain Sauvignon Blanc 2017
Dover Sole with Parsley Crisps
Zucchini Squash Blossoms
Baby Garlic Rouille
Argyle Pinot Noir “Reserve” 2016
Lady Apple Tart
Calvados Ice Cream
J Demi-Sec NV
The last time a U.S. president hosted the Australians for a state dinner was in 2006, when George W. Bush entertained Prime Minister John Howard. The White House Historical Association provided menus from that meal, and other Australia state dinners through the years.
President George W. Bush, for Prime Minister John Howard, May 16, 2006
- Early Summer Squash Soup, House-cured Duck Prosciutto
- Pan-roasted Barramundi, Charentais Melon Relish, Lemon Carnaroli Risotto with Asparagus Tips
- Summer Field Greens with Mangoes and Jicamas, Toasted Coconut-Lime Vinaigrette
- “The Australian Black Pearl” Nougat Glace Fresh Oranges
President Gerald Ford, for Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, July 27, 1976
- Melon and Prosciutto
- Supreme of Duckling, Saffron Rice, Asparagus Tips in Butter
- Bibb Lettuce Salad, Port Salut Cheese
- Chocolate Mousse Chantilly, Petits Fours
President Lyndon Johnson, for Prime Minister Harold Holt, June 1, 1967
- Coquilles St. Jacques
- Breast of Cornish Hen Virginia
- Green Beans Amandine
- Garden Salad
- Bel Paese Cheese
- Glacé Zara (named for Mrs. Holt)